Homesteading and The Law

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Once upon a time, about twenty years ago when I was a kid, I asked my dad for a horse.  I was fascinated with horses.  I had read Black Beauty and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In fact, I read every horse story I could find.  I subscribed to horse magazines.  I knew how to care for horses.  I knew horse anatomy and horse jargon and rules for jumping competitions.  I knew everything about horses, except what it was like to stand next to one.  So I asked for a horse.

My dad said no.  He didn’t make any of the usual arguments, like the fact that horses are expensive, or that I didn’t know how to ride, or that we didn’t have time for a horse.  My dad said to me, “Chris, we can’t get a  horse.  The zoning commission says you need to have three acres in order to own a horse, and we only have one.  Therefore, we can’t have a horse.”

It sounded logical.  Once I learned what the zoning commission was (which took a while, by the way — try to explain zoning to a kid some time), I didn’t question it.  We didn’t get a horse, and that was that.

Twenty years later, a story came across my radar that made me prick up my ears.  The story is about a woman named Sheri Sala, who lives in my hometown.  Sheri owns a goat.  Sheri also lives on a half acre plot.

Are you seeing a trend here?

Sheri received a cease-and-desist order from the Berlin zoning committee, for owning her goat on too little land.  Goats fall under the classification of “farm animal,” along with horses, cattle, sheep, poultry, game birds and rabbits. According to the law, you can’t own a farm animal unless you own three acres of land.

Sheri is trying to appeal, which would let Benny the goat live with her, because Benny is more of a pet than a farm animal.

To me, that’s not the real issue.  Yes, I agree that Benny shouldn’t be taken away from his home.  Benny is a pet and Benny has bonded with the family.  He makes less noise than a dog, and I’m sure his poops don’t smell any better or worse.

But the larger problem here is that laws like this exclude regular, everyday people from experimenting with homesteading.

Owning a little homestead has been a not-so-secret dream of mine for a while now.  Eventually, I would like to have a house with a garden and some sort of animal running around, like chickens or a goat or two.  I would also like to be close enough to town to take part in the town.  And most houses close to town are not going to give me three acres of land.

Trying to think from a local government’s point of view, there are downsides to allowing animals on small parcels of land: noise complaints, smell complaints, and in the case of goats, damage complaints.  There are also questions about the happiness of animals living on small plots.  But other people  seem to be faring just fine raising animals in their backyards.

With this in mind, it seems to me that our local governments should be amending existing laws like this and encouraging homesteading in suburbia.  For starters, people who homestead will be eating fresh, local food.  They’ll also be getting plenty of exercise as they work outdoors, both of which contribute to a healthy immune system.  Healthy people don’t miss work as often, and put less of a strain on resources like walk-in clinics and emergency rooms — things the community pays for.

Too, there’s the idea that people who homestead will be buying their supplies locally.  Large home improvement stores don’t carry animal feed, which means homesteaders would hopefully rely on local stores.  This means more money for the town overall.

People working outdoors contributes to an overall sense of neighborhood safety and community.  It’s very pleasant to walk down a street and see your neighbors, to call out to them as you ride your bike.  We should be encouraging that.

Not to mention the environmental benefits of eating locally, and the increase in the well-being of the animals you raise.

Part of the other reason that I think we have laws in place like Berlin’s three-acre law is to make it hard to farm.  I think that local governments don’t want their towns to be “farm towns,” because farm towns are supposedly full of hicks.  In the town’s eyes, there is nothing new or modern or earth-changing about farming.  After all, farms are frequently messy.  They are run by older people, which means nothing good for the growth of a small town.

I guess no one told the local government that young farmers are in, and homesteading is experiencing a resurgence.

We can do a few things for people like Sheri Sala.  Specifically, check into your town ordinances to confirm you can raise small livestock like goats, chickens, and rabbits on a parcel of land your size.  If you can’t, try to get these animals reclassified from livestock to small animals, which puts them on the same level as cats and dogs.  Even if you don’t want to raise your own food, work on these things to help other people, and get to know your local government.

Finally, one of the friendliest things you can do is to talk to the people in your community who are already raising their own food.  Get to know them, get to know their stories.  And for goodness’s sake, don’t call the cops when their chickens are cackling too much — talk to the people instead.

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©2011 at Simple Savvy, the simple living blog where laws like Berlin’s three-acre law dash the dreams of little horse-lovers everywhere.  Sniffle!  Horse nose image courtesy of nic0.  Goat image courtesy of tibchris.  Chicken image courtesy of Will Merydith.

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